The Institutional Silencing of Women by Natalie Weaver
On July 26, 2013, I had the opportunity to hear Rev. Helmut Schüller speak at the City Club of Cleveland’s Friday Forum. He spoke to a convened audience of around 150 people, in addition to the much greater broadcast audience, and he responded to questions that ranged from wholly supportive, to sincerely questioning, to highly critical. I myself sat with a group of vowed religious women from Pittsburgh who seemed enthusiastic about Rev. Schüller’s Austrian Priests’ Initiative, while behind me sat a table of obvious, vocal critics.
Rev. Schüller’s initiative, now represented by over 400 priests, began in 2006 as an effort to mobilize priests to lead the way for change in the Catholic Church in at least four crucial areas: women’s ordination; married priesthood; same-sex marriages; and lay participatory voting in the election of their bishops. Of course, Catholics have been having these conversations long before the Priests’ Initiative. What makes Father Schüller’s work different is that it is an “insider job.” He argued that the laity have done their part, and now it is time for the clergy to speak, even at some personal and professional risk to themselves.
I respect Father Schüller’s work, if in no other way, in the fact that he has elected to use his position of privilege in order to speak. For, I have read and heard from lay theologians much more persuasive theological arguments for ecclesial change than those warrants that Schüller himself offered. The difference here, however, is that Schüller is speaking as an activist reformer-priest. This means he speaks with institutional voice and not as one categorically exempted from the official conversation.
As I reflect on the talk, I am reminded of an egregious omission I have observed for years as a regular parishioner at a Jesuit parish. The omission reflects the androcentric bias characteristic of the institutionally voiced (however well-meaning). For over a decade, I have heard rich and nuanced dialogue about the poor, social justice, and solidarity with those who suffer. Yet, those suffering poor always seem far away, located south of the US boarder, and never explicitly identified as women. Now, it should be noted that I here am saying nothing at all about material poverty in Central and South America. I am, rather, noting that such discourse about poverty per se is ideologically different from direct discussion of the specific conditions of women’s poverty – local and global.
For, discussion of the specific conditions of women’s global impoverishment would identify such aspects as:
1) severely disproportionate unpaid labor burden on women worldwide;
2) gross economic disparity in paid labor;
3) a modern, global, neo-feudal structure in which women own almost none of the resources and property upon which they labor for no or unequal pay;
4) profound risk and common experience of sexual assault, domestic battery, and even murder; and
5) historical and ongoing exclusion of women from participation and leadership in the political, ecclesial, and educational institutions that – despite women’s exclusion- nevertheless define women’s lives.
The Roman Catholic Church cares about poverty. Catholic Social Teaching makes explicit seven core guiding principles, inspired by the Gospel message and understood as the moral duty of all Christians today. These principles poignantly mandate a Christian option for the poor and for solidarity with the world’s suffering.
Catholic Social Teaching, moreover, relies heavily on the principle of “subsidiarity,” which teaches that people should be empowered at the individual and/or most local organizational levels of society to take care of themselves. The Church would strive, then, to address poverty by helping the poor to help themselves, offering a “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out.”
It is here that I would like to suggest that since poverty is experienced most intimately by women (and the children women care for), then the Church has an obligation to name poverty as such. Moreover, Church leaders need to name and identify in unambiguous terms those conditions of women’s lives (including ecclesial conditions themselves) which contribute to and compound women’s material poverty and lead to institutionalized, ideologically reinforced, and systematically experienced vulnerability in nearly every aspect of women’s life.
I would moreover suggest that, in light of the subsidiarity principle, the Church ought strive to do everything in its power to help women themselves to shirk the disproportionate burdens of poverty through a widespread initiative aimed at empowering women to voice their experiences, speak their truths, and securely live in the goodness of God’s creation. While the Church in its Vatican II documents does speak plainly to non-discrimination against women, it does so in such a way that continues 1) to place women within a demarcated, essentialist sphere interpretively purposed for women by God and 2) to require women to rely on men’s voices to speak for them in all matters of formal, ecclesial being. Both qualifications, I believe, continue to sacralize the very conditions that ensure women’s poverty, and the latter qualification specifically militates against the principle of subsidiarity for poor women. Women, at best, are ecclesially stuck in a well-meaning paternalism, dependent on man’s generosity, guidance, tolerance, and welcome.
So, in conclusion, I appreciated the energy and vision surrounding Rev. Schüller’s talk. I also appreciated very much that he sees his work not as idiosyncratically, personally constructed but rather as a representation of the organically raised concerns of his parishioners. However, while I am encouraged that some priests are using their privilege to speak in matters of ecclesial reform for those who are formally, institutionally voiceless, such a need for them to do so at all sorely illustrates that many of us are still remanded to sitting at the children’s table, waiting for the occasional invitation to say something, or even better, perhaps, to have a taste of wine.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.